Steven Cohen, Managing Director Sage Pastel South Africa: CFOs should shed inertia when it comes to the cloud

CFOs provide us with some very good ideas for our product development, says Steven Cohen, the charismatic co-founder and Managing Director of SAGE Pastel South Africa. Sage specializes in accounting and business management software for small and medium sized businesses and is the market leader in South Africa. “It is time for the CFO to realise that he or she needs to embrace the power of technology. CFOs need to get rid of the inertia they show towards cloud computing, big data and mobile devices,” says Cohen.

CFO South Africa recently met with Cohen at a cafe terrace overlooking the grounds of the SAGE technology park and discovered an energetic entrepreneur who combines his understanding of the software industry with a CA (SA) title. One of his passions is to convince CFOs to embrace modern age technology. "I can see that the role of the CFO is changing to go beyond accounting. The CFO is in a position to invest in technology and deliver new value to the company. To benefit from technology they need to wake up and smell the coffee."

Cohen is passionate about the way digital technology changes the role of CFOs and finance professionals. "We can put the right information in the hands of every employee at any time, and the CFO has an important role to play in that development. His role is no longer limited to the accounting system and keeping the auditors happy. It evolves into a responsibility for all available data in the business. Connecting people, processes and data in a way that helps the business grow."

Cohen just finished a round of country-wide road shows with SAGE Pastel. With a zest for innovation, he personally takes the stage to tell his audience about the opportunities that a rapidly changing technology landscape offers. Invariably there are people in the audience that coin a new idea for SAGE after watching his presentation. "Showing the latest products that help accountants and finance directors improve their way of working, spurs out of the box thinking among professionals who are normally reluctant to change," Cohen observes.

Initially the company was started as Softline in 1988 by Cohen and two co-founders. It was listed on the JSE Securities Exchange South Africa in February 1997, and delisted in 2003 to be acquired by The Sage Group plc. Softline changed its name to Sage in February 2013. With over 6 million customers in 24 countries, Sage is a well-established brand. Cohen jumps up out of his chair to demonstrate how he uses real examples of connected systems and cloud computing on stage. "Our focus will be on moving the customers from hosting traditional single desktop applications to fully integrated web based ERP solutions."

During the road shows people can see for themselves how an invoice will lead to immediate updates in the general ledgers, the CRM, the sales reports and the personal dashboard on the mobile phone of a sales manager. By showing all these practical possibilities on stage, Cohen convinces his clients to take the next step. "The possibilities of producing user-generated, real time reports that you can access everywhere and at any time are here. This creates tremendous new value for the business," says the MD of Sage Pastel, which invests in its own teaching and training facilities to educate future finance professionals.

Combining marketing data with sales and financial data will help a sales force make much better decisions," Cohen explains. But he is not impressed by the speed CFOs are adopting the required change. "It starts with the awareness that CFOs need to upgrade their knowledge, which certainly is not something that should be delegated to the CIO." Cohen emphasizes that the CFO and the CIO must understand that their work fields are changing and overlapping. "They must work together to create new value for the business and manage the digital transformation. The CFO and CIO should be joined at the hip."

Although Cohen tries to spur on forward thinking, he understands where conservatism is too. "It seems that financial professionals aged 45 and older have a hard time keeping up with it," he says. "While they all use Facebook, they still don't see how cloud computing or Software as a service (SaaS) could benefit their businesses. And they are sceptical about the risk of moving from the old to the new." Cohen has no trouble relating to these 'conservative' CFOs he speaks to. "In the nineties someone I knew suggested that accounting and auditing processes should be supported via the then fairly new internet. I thought he had lost his mind!"

According to Cohen small and medium sized businesses show more agility in adopting the new ways to streamline their operations and increase business insight. But he is quick to add that there are many examples in South Africa of big businesses that have made the best use of technology to improve their business models and the way they manage finance, Discovery Health and Shoprite being global top performers in that regards. And, says Cohen with a smile: "This also is true for SAGE's own CFO Keith Gould, who over the years has implemented the business management software."